Re­mem­ber be­ing a teen and sim­ply hav­ing to own that one pair of shoes or jeans, with­out which you’d be re­duced to a so­cialal noth­ing? Eleanor Black looks back on sar­to­rial peer pres­sure through ugh the ages.

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For one glo­ri­ous and confusing month in the au­tumn of 1986, I was cool. Kinda sorta. It was all down to a pair of trim ice-blue Guess jeans with zips at the an­kles. The Guess logo, an em­broi­dered in­verted tri­an­gle that adorned the peach-per­fect butt of ev­ery ver­i­fi­ably cool boy and girl at my Cal­i­for­nia school, was the stamp of ac­cept­abil­ity the year I turned 12. And now it was sit­ting on my butt. I paired the jeans, ac­quired af­ter a piti­ful beg­ging cam­paign, with a blue and white striped but­ton­down shirt and a pair of plain white sneak­ers. I bounced into th the class­room in this crowd-en­dorsed out­fit and I w was a new girl. Still stringy, toothy and ten­der – bu but also bet­ter than I had been the pre­vi­ous w week. Let me tell you: heads turned. CurlyCurly-haired Nat (good at bas­ket­ball, ef­for­tle ef­fort­lessly like­able) told me I looked “cute”. It-girl Erica, a god­dess of few words, flashed an en­cour­agin­genc smile. An old older boy named Adam, who wore bro­ken-in Chuck Tay­lor high tops and rode a skate­board to school, started talk­ing to me af­ter class. He flippe flipped his hair back, asked if I “liked” him. I didn’t re­ally knowk what he meant.

A few days later, Nat in­vited me to a party. Adam would be e there, and Erica, and former friends who had dropped pped me over the sum­mer break, pos­si­bly be­cause I dressed like one of the sis­ters in Lit­tle House on the Prairie. The party was to be at Nat’s house and, though it was un­said, I some­how knew there would be al­co­hol. hol.

I was now cool at a level I could not han­dle. Be­sides, what would ould I wear? I only had the one pair of Guess jeans, andnd I wore them to school three days out of five.

I de­clined ned the in­vi­ta­tion. I told Adam I didn’t “like” him. I slipped lipped back to my right­ful place in the peck­ing or­der, al­beit lbeit with bet­ter clothes. That year I added some loudud T-shirts to my wardrobe, a pair of pointy turquoise se boots and loads of jelly bracelets. When I moved d school the fol­low­ing year, I ex­per­i­mented with boat at shoes, ba­nana clips, Levi’s red-tabs, Doc Martens. s. I had learned the im­por­tance of dress­ing to fit in, and to get by.

I ex­per­i­mented with boat shoes, ba­nana clips… I hadh learned the im­por­tancee of dress­ing to fit in.

Ul­ti­mately cool­ness spreads amongst peers, from one al­pha to an­other, fil­ter­ing down to theth fol­low­ers.

Mar­keters have been try­ing to un­lock the se­cret to cool­ness for years. While ev­ery­one can agree it is a so­cial con­struct and that ob­jects do not in them­selves hold sta­tus, the process by which a group con­fers cool­ness on a pair of shoes or a bag or a big plas­tic hair­clip re­mains a mys­tery. Re­searchers Mar­garet Camp­bell, from the Univer­sity of Colorado, and Caleb War­ren, from the Univer­sity of Ari­zona, who have prob­a­bly come clos­est to a use­ful def­i­ni­tion of cool­ness, say it has to do with de­part­ing from ac­cepted norms which are seen as a bit un­rea­son­able or un­nec­es­sary. The re­bel­lion has to be ap­pro­pri­ate, though, so it is cool to flout your school’s dress code by wear­ing ear­rings, for ex­am­ple, but not by going naked. Celebrity en­dorse­ment, slick mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, prod­uct place­ment: these all help, but ul­ti­mately cool­ness spreads amongst peers, from one al­pha to an­other, fil­ter­ing down to the fol­low­ers. “It’s not so much the item, it’s who’s wear­ing it,” says Dr Natalie Smith, who has stud­ied the fu­sion of Kiwi fash­ion and cul­ture at the Ben­son and Hedges Fash­ion De­sign Awards, which ran for 30 years from 1964. “If you think that per­son’s got a par­tic­u­larly cool vibe, you might want to wear what they’re wear­ing. Dress for suc­cess.” As a teenager in the Waikato, Smith, who lec­tures in so­ci­ol­ogy at Otago Univer­sity, re­mem­bers how styles would flow from school to school via sports ex­changes and dur­ing school hol­i­days when ex­tended fam­ily got to­gether. She also reck­ons the cool items had a much longer shelf-life be­fore the New Zealand econ­omy opened up and so­cial me­dia emerged. “Back in the 80s and be­fore Roger­nomics, be­fore there was The Ware­house and Glas­sons, you of­ten had to make your own [trendy items] and you had a bit more of an emo­tional in­vest­ment in them,” says Smith. She re­mem­bers ri­fling through her grand­mother’s but­ton col­lec­tion for big but­tons she could sew on a top to repli­cate a trend she liked. Mar­ket­ing man­ager Ma­ree Buscke of Napier re­calls buy­ing the white-hot sneaker of the mo­ment when she vis­ited the US in 1989. “My brother wanted me to bring back Ree­boks like MacGyver used to wear, which were fiendishly ex­pen­sive in New Zealand at the time.”

Some­times, in those pre-so­cial me­dia days, you could be too far ahead of the lo­cal trends. Auck­land writer David Herkt learned this when he was about 14, and asked his mother to repli­cate a thigh-length denim jacket with red stitch­ing he spot­ted in Esquire. “I wore it pre­cisely once be­cause a boy at this school

theatre trip I wore it to laughed at me in front of my friends. Truth is, there weren’t many places I could wear a mid-1970s im­i­ta­tion de­signer denim coat in my so­cial world.”

So­ci­ol­o­gist Chris Brick­ell, au­thor of the book Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Cul­ture in New Zealand, says that when we reach sec­ondary­secon school there is an ini­ti­a­tion, both ex­plicit and im­plicit, in how one dresses. You learn by watch­ing­watc oth­ers and by mak­ing mis­takes.

“Up un­til the 1950s, teenager­steenager ba­si­cally wore clothes that were very sim­i­lar to what their par­ents wore,” says Brick­ell.

“As the sec­ondary school pop pop­u­la­tion bal­looned af­ter World War II, with more work­ing-class­workin kids at­tend­ing high school, a new kind of fash­ion­fash for youths emerged.” It was pro­pelled by pop­u­lar films like Rebel With­out a Cause star­ring the b beau­ti­ful and doomed James Dean and Natalie Wood Wood.

Jeans, ini­tially as­so­ci­ated with­wit dis­rep­uta­bles like Dean’s misun­der­stood char­act char­ac­ter Jim Stark, were soon worn by all teen so­cial groups.groups “You look at Bi­ble class pho­tos from the 50s and 60s, and a lot of the kids are wear­ing jeans. “My so­cial group had an anti-style,”anti re­calls Brick­ell, who was at high school in the 1980s. “It was a non-style of bits and pieces you got from Hal­len­stein­sHalle or wher­ever.” Like many young New Zeala Zealan­ders, he wore a uni­for­mu­nif to school, but there werewer par­tic­u­lar quirks to theth way the cool kids worewo theirs, which were adoptedado by other stu­dents.

“Truth is, there weren’t many places I could wear a mid-1970s im­i­ta­tion de­signer denim coat in my so­cial world.”

“Our school had a uni­form with long socks but the boys would never, ever – ever – un­der any cir­cum­stances pull them up.” Sim­i­larly, there were un­writ­ten rules around what was ac­cept­able mufti-day fash­ion. “I have this rather em­bar­rass­ing mem­ory of wear­ing this two-tone green blousy top thing to a mufti day in the Hutt Val­ley in the 80s and be­ing laughed at. [An­other time] I got shit for wear­ing [a puffer jacket] zipped all the way to the top.” For the four Watkin sis­ters grow­ing up in Palmer­ston North in the 60s and 70s, the fash­ion fo­cus was on ac­quir­ing store-bought cloth­ing – any­thing made by their mother, a pro­fes­sional milliner, was con­sid­ered naff. “It was as much what you didn’t wear as what you did, which made for ex­haust­ing times so­cially,” re­mem­bers el­dest sis­ter Deb­bie, a psy­chol­o­gist. Her must-have list changed over the years, from bell bot­tom pants and “preggy” flo­ral tops with long, droopy col­lars to scrunchie hair ties, bush shirts and the clas­sic oil­skin parka, well worn-in. Her cousin Ch­eryl Com­fort, a Christchurch web de­signer, also cov­eted an oil­skin parka, and waited for one to cy­cle through two sis­ters. “It was ripped and cool by the time I got it.” Com­fort re­calls a golden fash­ion mo­ment from 1976 – a snap­shot of tri­umph – when she rocked up to a pri­mary school disco in a zip-up denim pantsuit. “I must have felt good,” she says, “be­cause I still re­mem­ber it.” Watkin says: “I seemed to ac­quire quite a few of these cool items of cloth­ing. I can’t re­call if this was be­cause I was def­i­nitely on the outer and a so­cial clim­ber, or if these things got me into the in­ner cir­cle and so I needed to keep get­ting them just to re­main there. But I do re­mem­ber how vig­i­lant I was.”

Phar­ma­cist Sarah Syme, who grew up in North­land, re­mem­bers her im­pa­tience to get her hands on a flouncy multi-lay­ered skirt (sis­ter to the beloved bub­ble skirt) that was pop­u­lar in the late 80s.

“Mum made me one in pink. I can re­mem­ber hound­ing her to fin­ish it, stand­ing over her while she put the last stitches in be­fore whip­ping it away from her, slip­ping it on and skip­ping out the door to the movies.”

While the feel­ing of hav­ing the right item at the right time was price­less, as the ads say, get­ting it wrong was ex­cru­ci­at­ing and this pres­sure for au­then­tic­ity seemed to grow with each pass­ing year.

While 8-year-old me was quite happy with home­made knicker­bock­ers (bur­gundy, of­ten paired with a fluffy pink top that looked like the Pink Pan­ther’s pelt), 14-year-old me was dis­ap­pointed by my mother’s knit­ted colour-block jer­sey and wore it un­der duress.

“The worst thing was get­ting called out for hav­ing a knock off,” says dancer Rhi­an­non Fair­less, who was teenager in the late 2000s. “Note to tween self: don’t think you can get away with buy­ing pseudo Louis Vuit­ton from Thai­land.”

Tour guide Natalie Watkin-Ward says: “I def­i­nitely made the mis­take of try­ing to get away with knock­offs, par­tic­u­larly in high school. I re­mem­ber a rather tragic pink and black ‘Von Dutch’ back­pack bought off Trade Me that did not see me be­come ef­fort­lessly cool.”

The same is true for adults – the mark­ers of cool still are there (Deadly Pony hand­bags are where it’s at in my world) and de­pend­ing on your so­cial cir­cle, ad­her­ing to the rules can be as im­por­tant as it was when you were 12.

Which is com­fort­ing, dis­ap­point­ing and ex­haust­ing all at once.

“It was as much what you didn’t wear as what you did, which made for ex­haust­ing times so­cially.”

Dress to find your tribe: from 8 up Docs to Swatch watches and rain­bow belts, each era had a must-have.

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